Internet search engines that operate in the UK could stop publishing links to websites that are deemed to be substantially infringing copyright under plans proposed by groups representing rights-holders.
The groups have proposed a voluntary code of practice for search engines in a bid to get them to engage more in tackling online copyright infringement. If adopted the code would also require search engines to relegate sites in their rankings for repeatedly making pirated content available and boost links to other "licensed" sites under a new "certification" scheme.
Under the suggested code search engines would also have to stop promoting pirate websites or placing ads on those sites. The code would also prohibit search engines from selling keyword advertising related to piracy terminology, whilst they would also be banned from selling mobile apps that help facilitate infringement.
The proposals were drafted by the British Recorded Music Industry (BPI), Motion Pictures Association (MPA), Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television (PACT), The Premier League and the Publishers Association.
The groups claim search engines that observe the code "would help to ensure that consumers are directed to safe and legal sources for entertainment content online and grow the UK digital economy".
However, the proposals have been described as "dangerous" by digital freedoms campaigners the Open Rights Group. The Group obtained a copy of the proposals (9-page / 410KB PDF) under UK freedom of information laws. The government has been chairing discussions between rights holders, internet companies and other stakeholders in a bid to establish self-regulatory regimes for tackling online piracy. The government has previously announced its reluctance to introduce new regulation to address the matter.
"We propose that in order to further protect consumers and to encourage responsible behaviour among websites, the extent of illegal content on a website should become a factor influencing the ranking of that website in search results returned to consumers. In addition, where a site has been found by a court to be substantially infringing, it should no longer be crawled, indexed or linked at all," the rights-holder groups said in their proposals.
The "mechanisms" for achieving this were not detailed, but the groups said they should be "simple and objective". They suggested rankings could be adjusted on the basis of the number of specific web-pages relevant to a website that have already been "de-listed" following a successful "takedown" request from rights holders. A value judgment on how "damaging" illicit material is to rights holders could also be used to determine the scale of rankings relegation that would apply, the groups proposed.
A "threshold" may also be established whereby any site engaged in "serious repeated or egregious infringement" could be temporarily or permanently de-listed from search results, they said.
Websites would be able to challenge de-listing requests, any de-listings would be published and search engines would not "face significant legal exposure" for their interventions, the groups said.
The groups also called on industry to put "appropriate certification programmes" in place to recognise websites featuring legal content and said search engines should then promote these certified sites above uncertified ones in search rankings. The programmes would need to be "transparent, open and non-discriminatory".
Prioritisation of sites would not occur in results for all searches, but in ones "where the consumer is clearly trying to access digital content to download or stream, rather than simply looking for information," the groups said.
"To use the example of music, we would propose that prioritisation be enabled for searches that contain any of the following key search terms: 'mp3', 'flac', 'wma', 'aac', 'torrent', 'download', 'rip', 'stream' or 'listen', 'free', when combined with an artist name, song or album title contained on a list to be regularly updated and provided to a search engine by a recognised and properly mandated agency representing rights holders for a particular sector, such as BPI," the proposals said.
Under a proposed code search engines should have to address the issue of advertising where "reputable" companies are associated with illicit content and pirate websites benefit from ad revenues on their site, the groups said.